Not Your Father's Olympics
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Long skeptical of each other, Olympic and X-treme sports are finally embracing — and they’ve made a baby named Sochi.
By Beau Dure
The Winter Olympics have always been a bit extreme compared to the Summer Olympics. Careening downhill at high speed on ice and snow is always good for a jolt of adrenaline. But the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, will be the most extreme yet.
Over the past 20 years, Olympic programmers have added new iterations of non-traditional ski and snowboard events like halfpipe and snowboard cross, staples from the X-Games, ESPN’s action sports fest. “Extreme” athletes like Shaun White have crossed over to the Olympic Games, winning gold medals and becoming household names.
The Sochi Olympics will have 12 new events, including freestyle skiing halfpipe and snowboarding slopestyle.
This winter, that all goes on steroids. The Sochi Olympics will have 12 new events, including freestyle skiing halfpipe, freestyle skiing slopestyle and snowboarding slopestyle. Sure, some of them are more traditional sports like team figure skating and team luge, but come February, you’ll be seeing a lot more skiers and snowboarders soaring through the air, showing off jumps, twists and tricks.
“It’s a new group of athletes who are going to be showcased for the first time,” says Rob Simmelkjaer, an NBC senior vice president who works on the Olympics and action sports events such as the Dew Tour. “One of the big stories we’re going to have in Sochi is whether Shaun White, who has been so dominant in snowboarding (halfpipe), can transfer that dominance to slopestyle. On the ski side, you’re looking at a new set of athletes. Who will be that next crossover breakthrough star that Shaun White has been on the snowboard, whether it’s in the half-pipe or in slopestyle?”
Many of the new events are either action sports or sports that try to capture a similarly fast, exciting vibe.
To give you an idea of how quickly the action trend has grown, there will be 20 freestyle skiing and snowboarding events at Sochi, just over 20 percent of the total. That’s more than the entire Winter Olympics prior to World War II. The Winter Games grew slowly for decades, jumped to 46 events in 1988 and then doubled to 98 events. Many of the new events are either action sports — loosely defined as something that puts a premium on pushing the boundaries of skiing and snowboarding — or sports that try to capture a similarly fast, exciting vibe.
Action sports don’t account for all the growth. Biathlon, popular in Europe, has added several events. Gender equity accounts for a few of the new additions, as women compete in biathlon, bobsled, ice hockey and, at long last this winter, ski jumping. And the modern Olympics feature one of the least extreme sports anywhere, curling.
But the ongoing emphasis on action in undeniable. Short-track speedskating, the roller derby of long-track speedskating’s track and field, joined the Games with freestyle skiing in 1992 and quickly ballooned to eight events. Skeleton, the head-first sliding event, was reinstated in 2002. The trend has even spread to more traditional sports, which are also reinventing themselves for the modern TV age. Speedskating, biathlon and cross-country skiing are coming up with ways for athletes to race each other rather than going one at a time and racing the clock.
It all brings a different edge to the Olympics, starting with younger viewers.
“There’s no question that the addition of these sports has made the audience younger,” Simmelkjaer says. “The IOC has seen that in their decision to bring these into the Games. When we’re marketing the Dew Tour to potential sponsors, the main attraction to them is that it attracts this millennial audience.”
Halfpipe and slopestyle also have their own vibe. Whether they’re on skis or snowboards, athletes are attached to the idea of “progression” — pushing the sport forward with something that hasn’t been seen before.
“For me, it speaks to the love these guys and gals have for the sport and their love of progressing the sport,” Simmelkjaer says. “When they see another competitor do a trick they’ve never done before, they think, ‘Wow, the sport just took a step ahead. Let me get to work on that trick.’ It’s pretty special to me; it’s the essence of what sports should be.”
After some initial skepticism when snowboarding first joined the Olympics, most newschool athletes have fully embraced the Olympics and the opportunity it presents. Last weekend’s Dew Tour event in Breckenridge, Colo., doubled as a qualification event for the U.S. Olympic team — quite convenient now that all of the Dew Tour’s events are in the Games.
Meanwhile, formerly nontraditional athletes are embracing the Olympic environment, from the competition itself to the chance to walk in opening and closing ceremonies. Slopestyle skier Nick Goepper had a typically enthusiastic reaction when he learned his event had been added to the Games. “I was not surprised, but I was insanely stoked,” Goepper told TeamUSA.org.
At this point, the Olympics are running out of action sports to add. The only snowboarding event at the World Championships that is not on the Olympic program is big air, a high-flying discipline as the name implies. It’s under consideration for future Games.